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Gambia was Britain’s smallest and most northernmost colony in West Africa.  The area of the colony was about 4,000 square miles stretching along both banks of the Gambia River and the population was believed to be less than 160,000 persons.  The capital was Bathurst located on the Atlantic coast.  The colony was surrounded on its three landward sides by French Senegal.  Before the Great War Gambia’s military contribution to the West African Frontier Force was an infantry company titled The Gambia Company

The establishment of the company was five Europeans (a Captain, two Lieutenants and two non-commissioned officers) and 130 Gambian soldiers holding ranks from private to company sergeant major.

Left: West African Signallers

During the Allied invasion of German Kamerun (the Cameroons) the entire Gambia Company was deployed operationally in stages.  Firstly the company signallers were despatched on 10th September 1914 under Lieutenant A. Mc C. Inglis.  This first party was absorbed into Allied Force Headquarters.  Then half the company followed on 15 January 1915 under the company commander Captain V.B. Thurston, and finally the remaining half of the company embarked on 19 September 1915 under Lieutenant H.G.V.M. Freeman.  During operations the Gambia Company was usually attached to a West African Frontier Force battalion from Nigeria, The Gold Coast or Sierra Leone.  When not attached to a battalion the company was employed on security duties along the lines of communication.

On 1 May 1915 Generall Dobell, the Allied commander in the Cameroons (the Allies were Britain, France and Belgium), ordered an advance on Yaunde, the enemy administrative centre, along the main road and the railway line.  But two days later the Allies ran into well prepared German positions denying a crossing of the Mbili River immediately west of Wum Biagas.  The German commander, Major Haedicke of No 1 Depot Company, had destroyed the bridge and placed stakes and abattis (obstacles made from felled trees) in the waist-deep river.  Haedicke commanded over 300 riflemen and three machine guns.  On the east (German) bank well concealed and skilfully sited trenches running to a length of 1,600 yards controlled a field of fire of about 300 yards.  The flanks of this trench line rested on the right on a steep forest ridge about 800 feet high, and on the left on the 120 feet wide and unfordable Kele River.

Zeile 1
Above: South Western Kamerun

The local British commander, Lieutenant Colonel A.H.W. Haywood (Commanding Officer 2nd Nigeria Regiment), despatched Captain C. Gibb with two companies of 2nd Nigerians to turn the enemy right flank whilst a strong holding attack was made frontally by the remainder of the Nigerians and the Gambia Company detachment.  The frontal attack, supported by 2.95-inch man-packed mountain guns, got to within 200 yards of the German trench line and established fire superiority.  However the flanking attack found the ridge too difficult to climb before dusk fell, and so Lieutenant Colonel Hayward withdrew all his men out of action before dark.  On the following day, 4 May, British reconnaissance patrols crossed the Mbila River and discovered that the Germans had withdrawn during the night.

Right: West African troops crossing the Mbila River on the re-built bridge

During the frontal holding attack on 3rd May the British had sustained 22 casualties including one European killed from the Gambia Company and three other Europeans wounded.  German casualties were not known.  The sergeant major of The Gambia Company, Ebrima Jalu, had fought and led his men courageously and he was later awarded the African Distinguished Conduct Medal.  His citation read:

“At the action at Mbila River, Jaunde Road, on 3rd May 1915, CSM Ebrima Jalu was in command of one of the hottest parts of the firing line after Lieutenant Markham-Rose was killed.  Although deprived of the moral support of any European for several hours, he displayed the greatest coolness and showed a fine example by the way in which he controlled his men and directed their fire throughout the day.”

On 25 May two miles east of Wum Biagas Captain Thurston led a turning movement with one Nigerian company and the Gambian half-company and forced an enemy retreat with the loss of only one British soldier.  Bivouacing for the night where they had fought the British force continued the advance next day, using their mountain guns to force the enemy out of a position near Ntim village.  During this day’s fighting the British sustained eight casualties, including Captain Thurston who was wounded.

Later in 1915, on 12 December, the complete Gambia Company was fighting alongside 1st Nigeria Regiment supported by a Gold Coast 2.95-inch gun and a detachment of Royal Engineers.  The action was around the village of Ngog which was held by a weak German detachment that made a good fighting withdrawal.  The British sustained eleven casualties in the fighting, including Lieutenant A.E. Coombs of the Gambia Company.  Lieutenant Coombs was wounded and later received a Mention in Despatches.

A fortnight later on 27 December the Gambia Company was again fighting alongside the 1st Nigerians when the town of Unguot was taken and an enemy detachment driven out of a position on the Ngobo River.  Yaunde was captured by the Allies on New Year’s Day 1916. The bulk of the German forces still at large made a withdrawal into internment across the neutral Spanish Guinea (Rio Muni) border.  The remaining German outpost at Mora in the north of the Cameroons surrendered on 18 February 1916 and the campaign was over.

During the later stages of the fighting in the Cameroons two more Gambia Company soldiers were awarded the African Distinguished Conduct medal: 511 Private Saljen Sidibi and 202 Sergeant Sambah Bah.  Both citations only state:“For service in the Cameroons.”

Both men were also awarded Mentions in Despatches as was Captain Thurston.  Sadly both CSM Ebrima Jalu DCM and Sergeant Sambah Bah DCM were to be later killed during the same battle in another theatre.

The Gambia Company then returned to Bathurst but not for long as on 15 April 1917 the Company sailed to fight in German East Africa.  On the Gambia Memorial in Banjul (formerly named Bathurst) are the names of nine men of the Gambia Company who died during the Cameroons campaign and who are buried somewhere in the Cameroons bush:

40 Private Baba N’Jie
325 Private Bakari Kwia
206 Private Jack Ropeyarn
Lieutenant Kenneth Markham-Rose
308 Sergeant Mdu Keita
327 Lance Corporal Mdu Sidibi
45 Gun Carrier Musa Bachili
322 Private Musa Kamara
638 Private Yoya Jow.  

Above: The Gambia Memorial (CWGC photo)

The Gambia Company was never strong enough to be deployed on its own operations but in the Cameroons the company earned a proud reputation by fighting well when attached to or in support of other West African Frontier Force infantry battalions.  


SOURCES:
Official History.  Military Operations Togoland and the Cameroons by Brigadier General F.J. Moberley.
The Empire at War by Sir Charles Lucas KCB, KCMG.
The Great War in West Africa by Brigadier General E. Howard Gorges CB, CBE, DSO.
The History of The Royal West African Frontier Force by Colonel A. Haywood CMG, CBE, DSO and Brigadier F.A.S. Clarke DSO.
The African DCM compiled by John Arnold.

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